Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for December, 2007

Slovenia at the Helm

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 31st December, 2007

slovenia-eu-presidency.jpgSlovenia takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union at midnight tonight — the first former Communist member state ever to do so. Who would have thought only 20 years ago that such a thing could be possible? It is a huge tribute to the government and the people of this small central European country — the most northerly part of former Yugoslavia — that they have come so far, so fast. They have already adopted the euro as their currency (ahead of all the other states which joined the EU in its ‘big bang’), and they started preparing for their EU presidency a full three years ago, with a thoroughness that would shame several older member states.

The irony is that this will almost certainly be the last time Slovenia has the chair as well, as the whole system of six-month rotating presidencies is due to be scrapped under the new EU Reform Treaty. But we can be sure that Ljubljana will be making the most of its time in the spotlight!  

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Stop Abusing the Word ‘Coward’!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 30th December, 2007

Predictably, both George Bush and Gordon Brown have condemned the recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto, each describing the act as ‘cowardly’. Condemnation is indeed appropriate. The killing was disgusting, shameful, appalling and (to use an unfashionable but singularly apposite word) dastardly. But ‘cowardly’? Surely not. Is an assassin or a suicide bomber in a large crowd a ‘coward’, knowing that at best he will blow himself up or be shot, or at worst be torn to pieces by the crowd, or arrested and tortured? Indeed, objectively one might argue that it is far more ‘cowardly’ to sit in the comfort of one’s office in the White House or 10 Downing Street and order ‘shock and awe’ bombing of cities, knowing full well that hundreds if not thousands of civilian men, women and children are likely to be killed or maimed as a result.

This is not just a matter of semantics. By dismissing assassins and suicide bombers as ‘cowards’, critics appear to absolve themselves of the responsibility of trying to understand why any man — or woman — should be driven to commit such a terrible crime. And as long as people fail to analyse the reasons behind such atrocities, there is little hope that they will discontinue. So, Mr Bush and Mr Brown, condemn where condemnation is indeed due. But please stop talking about ‘cowards’!  

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Ian McKellen’s CH

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th December, 2007

ian-mckellen.jpgThe actor Sir Ian McKellen has been made a Companion of Honour, the Order comprising just 65 people acknowledged to have given services ‘of national importance’ to the realm. It is an honour well deserved. Quite apart from his role as a Shakespearean actor of renown (not to mention his more ‘popular’ roles as Gandalf and Widow Twankey), Sir Ian has made a significant contribution to civil liberties and equality by his unequivocal stand on LGBT issues; he was a co-founder of the lobbying group Stonewall. As we both grew up in small towns in Lancashire and now live not far apart in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, I’ve long followed his activities with interest. Moreover, he is the complete antithesis of a self-important venerable actor, and he has a lively, sometimes childlike, sense of humour. It is typical of the man that one of his greatest theatrical ambitions (having towered in numerous Shakespearean roles) was to appear on ‘Coronation Street — which he did, for 10 episodes, in 2005.   

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A Dose of Eno’s

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th December, 2007

brian-eno.jpgTonight’s London ‘Evening Standard’ works itself up into a lather over a statement by Brian Eno — Nick Clegg’s new Youth Guru — that Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is partly the West’s fault; in his words, ‘we have left Iran really with only one rational option’. Typically, Labour’s John Spellar has tried to make political capital out of this, by calling on Nick to disown Brian Eno, who also reportedly called for Britain to dismantle Trident. I trust Nick will give Spellar the raspberry he deserves.

Quite apart from the fact that much of what Eno says about nuclear weapons would chime in with what many young people in this country think, it is worth examining his comment about Iran seriously. I am in no way a supporter of Iran’s becoming a nuclear weapons power, but I can quite see why Tehran feels it is surrounded by hostile states, including a nuclear-armed Russia (currently cooperating with Iran on nuclear energy, but deeply antagonistic to militant Islam), an ever more unstable nuclear-armed Pakistan, a US-occupied Iraq and a Saudi Arabia that is armed to the hilt with so-called conventional weapons. Moreover, while the Western world’s concern about the posibility of Iran going nuclear is legitimate, when is it going to do something about the one Middle Eastern power that already has a nuclear capability: Israel?

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What Exactly Are Families?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th December, 2007

When Nick Clegg was elected the new leader of the LibDems, he surprised many members by announcing that he was going to establish a network of ordinary families round the country, people unconnected with mainstream politics, so he could find out what they were thinking. My left eyebrow certainly went up sharply. Not because I don’t think politicians should engage with ‘real people’ — on the contrary — but rather, over his choice of the word ‘families’. It’s not just that the word ‘family’ is more commonly part of the rhetoric of right-wing politicians. It is a fact that these days, fewer than 30% of households in Britain are made up of traditional ‘families’. Indeed, in London especially, the big trend in accommodation patterns has been for single-person dwellings. Shared households reflect all sorts of social patterns and relationships.

I suppose it is inevitable that my mind turns to the ‘family’ question on Christmas Day, which in Britain in particular is the day that families traditionally spend together. Christmas cards, chocolate boxes and the television all maintain the myth that this is what it is all about. Even the Church often ignores the fact that Jesus was born in an extremely unorthodox fashion into a dysfunctional family, whom he later left — urging his followers to do likewise, in search of truth, enlightenment or whatever one wants to call it — never married or had kids (as far as we know). Bully for him, I say, as that was right for him. I am reminded of André Gide, whose writings had a marked influence on my youth, when he pronounced, ‘Familles, je vous hais!’ (even though that author actually adored his mother, to an almost unhealthy degree).

I do not hate families myself. To do so would be silly, as well as unjust, and a form of special pleading from someone who doesn’t have one, up or down (if you see what I mean). And I am truly happy for happy families, where they exist. But on Christmas Day above all, those of us who do not have families, or whose family life is not perfect, who are bereaved, or orphaned, or living in different life situations or arrangements, might be tempted to say to Nick Clegg and others: ‘Yes, consult widely! But please, talk about and to individuals, households and communities, not just families!’

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Blair, the Pope and the Iraq War

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd December, 2007

tony-balir-ad-pope-jihn-paul-ii.jpgI imagine many of us would have liked to be a fly on the wall at Tony Blair’s pre-conversion Confession, not least to know if he now counts the Iraq War amongst his sins. Before the 2003 hostilities, he sought God’s guidance, we are told. Did he receive a message from on high telling him to smite all of Mesopotamia? That certainly was not the advice he was getting from the then Pope, John Paul II, with whom Mr Blair had a private audience in February 2003. On that occasion, the Pontiff made it abundantly clear that any war launched against Iraq would be ‘a defeat for humanity’. But of course, Mr Blair wasn’t a Catholic at the time (even if he was caught out and reprimanded by Cardinal Basil Hulme illegitimately taking Mass at Westminster Cathedral). So that’s alright then. 

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BNP in Disarray

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 22nd December, 2007

I have to confess to a certain Schadenfreude over the recent divisions within the British National Party. In a scenario worthy of an airport novel, the leadership has been accused of spying, theft and money-launchering. A number of key activists have broken away, to set up the ‘Real BNP’. An official BNP spokesman has tried to talk down this split as a ‘slither’, but the facts make that a hard case to defend. Not for the first time, internal disputes have resulted in fisticuffs, in which some activists have been only too willing to show their true colours. Nick Griffin may have presided over moves to ‘soften’ his party’s image (such as getting some of the skinheads to dress up in suits). Moreover, in some areas, BNP literature has had a make-over, more reminiscent of a LibDem ‘Focus’ leaflet than of more predictable racist tracts. But the electorate is unlikely to be easily fooled.

The fortunes of the BNP are of particular concern in London, not least because in the last PR elections to the Greater London Assembly (GLA), the BNP almost crossed the 5 per cent threshold that would have given them a seat in the assembly. Since then, the party has become the official oppostion in the borough of Barking and Dagenham. Indeed, one of those councillors, Richard Barnbrook, is set to wed prima ballerina, Simone Clarke. But in the wake of recent revelations, the picture is not as rosy as Griffin and Co would make out. In a by-election in Harrow earlier this month, the party garnered a measly 56 votes. Moreover, all the main parties have become much more sophisticated in fighting the BNP threat, and will be applying those skills in the run-up to next May’s GLA elections. So, in the spirit of Christmas, I wish Cllr Barnbrook and Ms Clarke well, and hope that they and others in the BNP will soon find reason to spend much more time with their families.


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Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th December, 2007

Last night, the LibDem young professionals’ discussion and social group, CONNECT, held its Christmas dinner at Thai Square, just off Trafalgar Square. (Party members interested in being involved in CONNECT can get in touch by doing a search on Facebook.) As several of its core members — not least Rab Makki, from Channel 4 — were keen backers of Nick Clegg in the leadership contest, they were in a mood to celebrate. But of course the talk round the table was about where the party goes from here. Even amongst those of us who backed Chris Huhne, there is a feeling that there does now have to be a step-change. We can’t just go on in the way we have done in recent years, just adding a few more seats at each election (or maybe even losing some next time). We need a surge forward, and that may require a change of strategy. Certainly this is something for Nick and his team to reflect on over their mince pies!

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Post Conflict People

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th December, 2007

Black Rod (Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Willcocks) hosted a reception at the House of Lords last night, to launch Post Conflict People, a group of professionals with experience in post-conflict reconstruction, development and institution building, for which several parts of the world are in crying need. Lord (Paddy) Ashdown gave a short speech, reprising the arguments set out in his latest book, declaring, ‘I don’t think we can control conflicts unless we are willing to intervene. But we can learn to do it better.’ Also present at the reception were Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who was Her Majesty’s Special Representative in Iraq following the 2003 invasion, and Miles Wickstead, former Ambassador to Ethiopia, who is now heavily involved with the Westminister Foundation for Democracy, for which I have done a number of missions in recent years. Miles coincidentally now lives in the manor house in Paddy’s village of Norton-sub-Hamdon in Somerset. But all the signs are that we will soon see Paddy heading off to Afghanistan — an even greater challenge than the one he faced in Bosnia.

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Applause All Round

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th December, 2007

Sincere congratulations to Nick Clegg on becoming the new LibDem leader, but also congratulations to Chris Huhne, for fighting a splendid campaign. Whatever snide remarks may have appeared in print or on the air, my fellow hacks have been duly impressed that the Party had not one but two potential leaders of such calibre. At the outset of the contest, I had assumed Nick would win by a mile (though I was backing Chris), but it increasingly became obvious that it was a much closer call. But the great thing is that Huhnites such as myself are also happily Cleggites. It was a win-win contest, either way. I was confident that either man could lead the LibDems to a new level of electoral success, and I am sure that Nick, Chris, Vince and other stars of the LibDem frontbench will give the deflated Gordon Brown and the over-inflated David Cameron a good run for their money.


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